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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Navajo Nation will crown this year's Miss Navajo tonight. It is not a conventional beauty contest with swimsuits and high heels, as Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ reports from Flagstaff.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: Here's a talent competition for you - butchering sheep. It's sweltering and throngs of people have gathered under a giant tent where some small campfires burn. The smoky cedar masks the smell of raw mutton. The young women work in teams to decide who cuts the sheep's throat, who removes the stomach and who quarters the carcass.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

MORALES: The crowd reacts as one petite woman struggles to lift an enormous, slippery stomach out of her sheep. Contestants sweat under traditional Navajo dress of velvet, satin and layers of turquoise jewelry. Judges circle and scrutinize. Immediately after the girls finish, they must answer impromptu questions in Navajo, like what are you supposed to do with the sheep's head?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Aluminum foil. Wrap it in foil and put it on the fire. And you roast it and bake it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING)

MORALES: The crowd boos because they don't like her answer, and because she switches to English. The event proves these girls can multitask, stay calm under pressure and most importantly, says Wallita Begay, prove their understanding of Navajo customs.

WALLITA BEGAY: It's an essence of who you are, who your family is, who your community is. And you're not just representing yourself, you're representing your community, you know, when you compete. And then once you get the title, you're representing an entire nation.

MORALES: Begay says she's been butchering sheep with her grandmother since she was 12. For her, speaking Navajo is the hardest part of the competition. Most of the contestants grew up speaking English because their parents knew little Navajo. Many had to attend government-run boarding schools and were pushed to assimilate into American culture.

BEGAY: This whole entire generation, you know, our parents' generation, they were raised to think that Navajo was bad to speak. They tied the language and the reservation with failure.

MORALES: More people today realize that the language is a part of their identity and the Navajo identity is something to be proud of. You can feel it when you're at this competition. And contestant Charlene Goodluck says you can hear that pride in the language families use when they talk to each other.

CHARLENE GOODLUCK: When the grandmother, when she uses terms of endearment with her child, (Navajo spoken), you know, (Navajo spoken), it means my granddaughter or my daughter or my child. And it gives that child a sense of belonging.

MORALES: Goodluck says that since she grew up off the reservation in Albuquerque, she felt distant from her culture.

GOODLUCK: And a lot of our youth today are experiencing that loss of not having anywhere to go or having a home.

MORALES: Goodluck's own grandmother taught her if you don't know who you are, you don't know where you're going. If you don't know where you're going, you're lost. Her grandmother always wanted her to be Miss Navajo. And Goodluck's family has sacrificed a lot of time and money for her to compete. This is her third attempt at the crown.

GOODLUCK: Oh my gosh, I want it so bad I can taste it. I'm starting to visualize it. I have a lot of advice from formers they'll tell you, you know, tell yourself you're Miss Navajo. Look in the mirror and say I am Miss Navajo.

MORALES: Goodluck will find out if her dream becomes reality tonight at the coronation. For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.

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